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Ceefax: mourning a casualty of the digital switchover

Tonight is the night the UK finally bids farewell to the televisual institution that is Ceefax, after 38 years of stunning block graphics delivering us the very latest news and views from around the world.

At 23:30 BST, Northern Ireland will turn off the last analogue TV signal in the UK, completing our digital switchover and terminating Ceefax’s life support in the process. The service has limped through its twilight years with the red button and similar features relegating Ceefax to late night and early morning slots, sadly consigning its heyday of TV ubiquity to the history books.

(opens in new tab)Ceefax was launched on 23 September 1974, bringing news headlines, sports scores, TV listings and weather forecasts to viewers at the press of a button. The BBC (opens in new tab) says the service was spawned from the development of TV subtitles, when engineers found it was actually possible to transmit full pages of text information via the “spare lines” transmitted in the analogue TV signal.

Ceefax earned its name from the idea of readers being able to simply “see the facts”, and the service was soon recognised for its ultra-concise, yet clear and informative, stories.

As a child and teen, the Ceefax key was the most used on my TV remote. In fact I can remember the teletext icon being completely worn away on the rubber button of our JVC controller, such was the frequency with which my thumb lurched across the device to bring up those profoundly garish graphics.

Page 302 was my go-to, as I headed straight for the latest football headlines unless the death of a celebrity flashed up on the home page’s headlines to divert my attention before I could pound out the magic digits. Whole Saturday afternoons were spent transfixed on page 316, gazing at the screen waiting for the Premiership scores to refresh and deliver the inevitable pain of another goal conceded by Charlton.

Sports fans were typically the Ceefax connoisseurs, rattling through well-rehearsed page navigations to bring up the latest results, but all news was speedily covered as it broke and those wanting to track goings-on in tech, music, gaming, travel, the stock market and more were catered for. ITV and Channel 4 would launch their own rival teletext pages – which were poor imitations in truth – save for features like the quiz extravaganza Bamboozle.

Your host, Bamber Boozler, gave as good as he got and effectively provided a 24-hour teletext equivalent of ‘Who Wants To Be A Millionaire?’, just without the cash. But also without the nauseating antics of Chris Tarrant. Swings and roundabouts.

The Ceefax news headlines nevertheless reigned supreme, and in the days before the Internet, this really was the ultimate portal to see what was happening in the rest of the world. With no computer at your disposal or smartphone in your pocket, where else could you go during the gaps between TV or radio news bulletins?

And even now, for all the Internet’s capabilities and mind-blowing depth, it can be hard to find the perfect streamline outlet for fast, succinct news. This is what Ceefax provided, with a whole load of colourful charm thrown in.The world will be a poorer place after half past eleven this evening.

(Images: BBC (opens in new tab) and Telegraph (opens in new tab))

Will began working life as a technology journalist at ITProPortal as Senior Staff Writer. He's worked as a Copywriter, then Creative Lead across video, social, email, web and print. He is currently a Senior Content Strategist at Zone.